President Trump has received a lot of criticism for the slow federal response to the damage resulting from Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico. Hillary Clinton suggested that Trump was unaware (as are roughly half of Americans, according to some polls) that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Trump himself explained that Puerto Rico is “an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. It’s a big ocean, it’s a very big ocean.”
The ocean wasn’t the main problem, actually. Logistics on the Island was the main problem — apart from the legacy of Puerto Rico’s territorial status, which led to outdated, poorly maintained electric and water and sewer systems, fragile roads and bridges, and a cash-poor government. Impassible roads, washed-out bridges, a lack of fuel, and a lack of truck drivers kept the supplies sitting at the port in San Juan instead of being distributed to the people who needed those supplies.
The White House was slow to respond, though. Intensive work by Governor Rossello, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, and other Puerto Rico leaders meant that the emergency declaration from the White House came before the Hurricane hit, so federal funding was already approved when the need arose. But Puerto Rico didn’t have cash for the co-pay required to access federal disaster funding, and the waiver of that 25% co-pay didn’t come for more than a week after the hurricane hit.
The USN Comfort wasn’t sent out until more than a week after the hurricane hit, either. The Coast Guard was helpful from the beginning, but additional help from the Department of Defense could have made a big difference in the days after the disaster began, and that help also was delayed.
The White House has no explanation beyond the “big water” issue, and has consistently claimed that everything is going well in Puerto Rico, referring to appreciative words from Puerto Rico’s leaders, who have responded graciously to the federal assistance the Island has received. Social media shows anger over what the American public perceives as personal irresponsibility on the part of the president, or even racism on his part.
But Andrew Reeves of the Washington Post has another suggestion: Presidential Particularism. His research, and that of other social scientists, has found that presidents in general are more likely to respond “vigorously” to natural disasters in states that supported them. Republican Texas and Trump-supporting Florida, according to this theory, are naturally more likely to get help from the Trump White House than Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s voters chose Marco Rubio in the Republican primary, and did not get to vote at all in Presidential elections.
Another finding from the research cited was that disaster response was more likely to be lukewarm in states that were less likely to vote for the incumbent president. Puerto Rico, with no electoral votes, is obviously unable to vote for the current president.
Puerto Rico, with no voting members in the U.S. House of Representatives and no senators, has a lack of influence in the legislation compared with states which have voting legislators. That’s common sense. But it may be that the additional factor of presidential particularism also gives Puerto Rico less influence with the executive branch of the federal government.
Reeves suggests that the administration, noticing the negative response of the American people to the plight of Puerto Rico, may make a push to help. On the other hand, he suggests that even more people may leave Puerto Rico and settle in Florida, where they will be able to vote in the next presidential election. If so, he says, “presidential particularism could backfire.”
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